Respectful Insolence

What kind of PI am I?

For those not in academic biomedical research, “PI” stands for “principal investigator”; i.e., the person who wrote the grant that funds the laboratory effort and (usually) the leader of the laboratory. Unlike Revere, I’ve only been a PI for around 8 years and an NIH-funded PI for only around two and a half years, I still remember what it was like to be a graduate student and then a postdoc laboring away under my PI, all for the greater glory of his name (and, hopefully, mine), as well as to produce preliminary data to bolster the next grant application.

Via Revere, I find this rather amusing take on the Nine Types of Principal Investigators:

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I haven’t decided which kind of PI I am. On most days, I’m probably the Laid Back type; other days, the Science Wonk or the Big Talker. On rare occasions I can be the Psycho or Control Freak (these times usually coincide with the month before a grant deadline), but that’s very uncommon–at most a couple of times a year. There are also times when I like to think I’m a Rising Star, but that may be an exaggeration. One thing’s for sure, I’m definitely not the DemiGod, nor am I likely ever to be one.

Another odd observation is that both PIs that I worked for for an extended period of time most resemble Big Talkers. They thought big, talked big, and emphasized the big picture, motivating me to find my niche in the machine trying to advance the overall project and keeping me motivated about how important it was. That’s not a bad thing.

If you’re a PI, what kind of PI are you? If you’re a graduate student or postdoc, what kind of a PI is your PI?

Comments

  1. #1 Mark F.
    October 23, 2007

    I’m a researcher in an ophthalmology lab. I showed this to my PI. She thought she best fit the Small Town Grocer or Control Freak. I agree with the Small Town Grocer but not the Control Freak. My former PI is definitely a combination of Control Freak, Psycho and Slave Driver. Very unpleasant.

  2. #2 Josh
    October 23, 2007

    My PI is a mix between the Small Town Grocer and the Slave Driver. He’s always working hard in the lab, and expects the same from his grad students. He knows what projects he wants to work on, and they just aren’t the type you’d see in Science or Nature.

  3. #3 Nat
    October 23, 2007

    I’m glad to say mine’s a combo of a demi-god and a science wonk without the bad stuff.

    As long as I keep writing papers he seems pretty happy.

  4. #4 Jesse
    October 23, 2007

    Just printed it out, checked off, ‘Slave Driver’ and ‘Control Freak’ and taped it to my PI’s door.

    I’m a dead man.

  5. #5 Julia B
    October 23, 2007

    Could be worse, Jesse. My supervisor for grad studies was a cross of “Slave Driver” and “Psycho”. And people wonder why I stopped with just my master’s…

  6. #6 Jeb, FCD
    October 23, 2007

    My former PI is a combination of the middle row.

  7. #7 Infophile
    October 23, 2007

    I’m still pretty new to actually being a grad student, so I can’t make that much a judgment of my adviser quite yet. My closest guess at this point would be the Laid Back, but it’s quite possible he’s just acting that way towards me because I’m new and his real side will shine through later. Time will tell.

  8. #8 fake plants
    October 24, 2007

    My PI is a rather unusal combination of the Big Talker and the Slave Driver. So, he makes your data seem very important on a saturday at 2 am, after you’ve been in the lab all day and aren’t quite sure even what the weather is like outside. That being said, he’s awesome.

  9. #9 Mike O'Risal
    October 24, 2007

    Combination of Science Wonk and Demigod, I think. My PI is a huge name in the field and gets very excited about new technology. Thus, he’s off at conferences nearly every week and comes back from each with ideas about some technique, assay, whatever that he thinks we should employ, even though it costs twenty-seven bajillion dollars and will require retooling everything. We’re at a small university, and I think he probably ought to be at a big one with tons of resources. I am frequently worried that he’s going to end up leaving, in fact.

  10. #10 mark a
    October 24, 2007

    My old PI was mostly a science wonk, with a little slave driver and psycho stuck in for good measure. For better or worse I am probably laid back with a bit of small town grocer, although I probably should bring this to my students and post doc and have them decide.

  11. #11 Dianne
    October 24, 2007

    As a PI with no underlings (I am the only person on the grant I am PI of), I am a combination of slave driver and laid back, depending on my mood. Control freak is unavoidable. My uber-PI is a big talker with a trace of demigod. Could be worse.

  12. #12 Ethan Romero
    October 24, 2007

    I think there should be a 13th type called “The Consummate Outsider”. They have perfected the position of the mainstream fringe, always proposing a ‘radical’ solution. (+) May or may not have actually revolutionized the field (-) Likes ‘synergizing’ buzzwords more than actual science.

  13. #14 Joe
    October 24, 2007

    I met a guy who had gotten his PhD from someone who is arguably the most gifted chemist in history. I asked the guy what the professor was like and he said “I really don’t know. When I joined the lab he handed me a list of things to do, and I did not see him again till I handed him my dissertation.”

  14. #15 Joe
    October 24, 2007

    I should have said was the most gifted chemist. After he died, I asked one of his colleagues if we will ever see another like him. He replied “No, he was a mutant.”

  15. #16 Nat
    October 24, 2007

    Joe

    Was it Pauling by any chance?

  16. #17 vlad
    October 25, 2007

    My PI was (I’m done with academia and wouldn’t go back at gun point) a mix of psycho, slave driver, and big talker. He expected us to do “40 hours per week” which would be fine except he set dead line that required 80+ hours. He was afraid of the key point of the project, because he didn’t understand it. Talked a lot about the project and would have full blown freak outs. I’d say he was the most mercurial person I have ever worked with, because out of nowhere he would become laid back to the extreme. I think lab animals in other labs had better treatment then most of us. He did have one favorite student who never got crapped on and was never forced to do over nights, that student never went any where either as far as I can tell.

    I never forgot my spouses name but there were a few weeks that I forgot what she looked like. I also found that sleeping in ones car wasn’t as bad I had imagined.

  17. #18 Dominic Suciu
    October 25, 2007

    I showed this to my PI and He fired me . . . Help !! anyone looking for an aging post-doc in the Seattle area?

  18. #19 James Stein
    October 26, 2007

    I’d say my PI is a combination of Rising Star and Laid Back. He’s nice to be around.

  19. #20 Joe
    October 26, 2007

    Nat,

    No, it was not Pauling. That is an interesting guess because the American Chemical Society took a poll concerning the most influential chemists, it covered most of the 20th century. Pauling came in #1 and there is no doubting his early importance. However, I think he was just best known because of his science (Nobel), politics (Nobel), introductory textbook, his major book “The Nature of the Chemical Bond” and his later vitamin quackery.

    I suppose there is no reason to make you guess- I referred to organic chemist RB (Robert Burns) Woodward. As I recall, he ranked second in said poll. He would have received a second Nobel in chemistry if he had not died young.

  20. #21 Dr Aust
    October 26, 2007

    Not sure how one would exactly compare an organic chemist (RB Woodward) with a physical chemist (Pauling)… but speaking as a long-ago Chemistry B.Sc. and organic chemistry major it is fair to say RBW was top of the organic chemistry pile by “faculty consensus”. He was also widely accounted a very strange individual.

    I see from Wikipedia that Woodward he got the Chemistry Novel the year after Dorothy Hodgkin and just before Robert Mulliken, which is a pretty impressive three year stretch of Chemistry Nobelists.

  21. #22 Joe
    October 26, 2007

    Dr. Aust,

    I agree with you, and that is why I originally stated that Wodward (the un-named scientist, at the time) was arguably the most intellectually gifted chemist in history.

  22. #23 Dr Aust
    October 27, 2007

    Yup, it is a common opinion in Universities that individuals of an Aspergerist and/or mildly psychopathic disposition often do rather well in academia…

  23. #24 Nat
    October 28, 2007

    Thanks Joe.

    Pauling would have been an interesting. Those three facets or stages to his career, I imagine, would have made a huge difference to his graduate students and postdocs experience of the man.

  24. #25 Nells
    October 30, 2007

    I love this post! Had me remembering my past scientific PIs with fondness, or not… The two extremes I encountered were PI#1 – part slave driver, control freak, science wonk and rising start, to the opposite in PI#2 – part big talker and part laid back.
    Escaping the lab, I’ve moved into industry and now have to work side-by-side with PI’s in clinical research, rather than be directly managed by them. Elements of the cartoon still exist, but I’d love to see a revision of the cartoon for clinical research PIs. For example, the Big Talker Clinical PI – same text out of his mouth would be appropriate. The +ve = good for encouraging others to become involved with the trial, or later publicity of the new treatment. The -ve = overdelegates and never available to sign off a CRF or paperwork.
    Anyone up for the challenge of revising the cartoon for clinical research PI’s?